Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “an army marches on its stomach.” The famous French Emperor was also said to have carried chocolate on his many military campaigns to provide energy. Unlike much of chocolate’s decadent history, the story of chocolate in the military is utilitarian, putting practicality before pleasure. The development of the functional use of chocolate parallels and contrasts its evolution as an indulgent treat with broader implications on social roles and taste.
Military use of chocolate can be traced to antiquity, with the Aztec army’s use of cacao and chocolate documented by various sources. With chocolate consumption restricted to certain social groups, the army occupied a high class in Aztec society and was crucial in ensuring the state’s continued prosperity. Given their critical roles, Aztec warriors were among the few who were given the right to eat chocolate, able to purchase it in public markets in addition to receiving it on their military campaigns (Presilla 19). Fray Diego Duran gave particularly descriptive accounts of cacao’s use as a military ration, which was made into pellets, wafers, and balls and distributed to each soldier (Coe 98). While chocolate was typically consumed as a beverage during this time, these solid forms were easier to carry and could be shaved into pieces or dissolved in water.
Old World soldiers were among the earliest to encounter chocolate, and they initially showed an aversion to its bitter taste. Greater exposure over time as well as a hybridization of flavors improved receipt among conquistadors, with one “gentleman of Hernan Cortes” asserting in 1556 that “the drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else” (Coe 84).
For the next two centuries, chocolate spread throughout Europe. From the late 17th century on, chocolate could be found in public coffee-houses, the caffeinated drinks fueling political debate. Chocolate houses came into their own in the mid-1700s, and these meeting houses nurtured political ties and talks of revolution. Chocolate played a role in Europe’s revolutions, but it was not yet listed among standard military provisions.
In the late 1600s and 1700s, chocolate made its way back across the Atlantic to British colonies in America. As early as 1755, chocolate was used as a ration for troops during the French and Indian War, as it that could be transported without spoiling. Benjamin Franklin himself helped to supply chocolate to officers serving under General Braddock (Snyder). Chocolate rations were also distributed by rank to Continental soldiers during the Revolutionary war (McKay). As the war stretched on, chocolate was limited due to British interception of imports and occupation of chocolate production centers (Grivetti and Shapiro). With dwindling supplies, Massachusetts even forbade its export as it was needed “for the supply of the army” (Snyder).
American military use of chocolate proved to be long-lived, playing an important role in feeding troops and boosting morale in every war and conflict thereafter. During the Civil War, Union soldier Henry Pippitt of the 104th Ohio Volunteer Infantry wrote of the capture of rebel supplies, saying “we were quite surprised to find what our enemy subsisted upon. Aside from similar particulars including hard tack and smoked meats, it appears our southern brethren quite prefer the taste of peaches… bologna links, and milk sweetened by what appears to be chocolate.”
Industrial revolution and the turn of the century brought greater organization surrounding the transportation and distribution of food products, both at home and overseas. After the outbreak of WWI, R.F. Mackenzie, president of the National Confectioners Association remarked that “The world must have its sweets. As the wise man has said, ’Candy’s fair in love and war.’ The lover demands his package of bon-bons with which to propitiate his sweetheart; and the veteran of the tranches requests his strength-renewing tablet of chocolate” (Kawash).
Organizations such as the YMCA set up canteens to provide treats and entertainment to soldiers, including hot chocolate which was said to make the soldiers feel “like new men” (McKay). YMCA canteens supported soldiers in both WWI and WWII, and as one canteen girl wrote, “we had ministered to the boys’ souls in the morning, fortified the inner man with free hot chocolate at six o’clock, now we were going to finish out the day by satisfying their romantic cravings with a film drama of love and adventure” (Morse).
The military officially sanctioned chocolate as part of the standard ration in 1937, working closely with Hershey to develop a special bar for hard-traveling, calorie-expending soldiers. The bar was designed to be heat resistant, high in food energy, and low on sugar and taste so as to prevent soldiers from snacking on the chocolate in non-emergency situations. Field Ration D, coined the Logan Bar after the Army Quartermaster Captain who helped develop it, was broadly disliked. These brick-like chocolate rations were distributed to the Allied troops across Europe, and spurred other chocolate manufacturers such as Cadbury and Nestle to target soldier consumers.
On the home front, chocolate was often rationed during WWII, and occupied countries especially saw very little of it. Chocolate, then, was used by soldiers to exchange for other goods and foods or to build good-will with foreign populations, fueling both fighting and diplomacy.
Continuous refinement of the military-grade bar, from the Logan Bar, to the high-heat resistant Tropical Bar, to the much later desert bar in the from the 1980s, showed efforts to improve the flavor of the bar, particularly by adding sugar, while preserving its long shelf-life and heat-resistant qualities. Still, the bar was far from artisan. Globalized military use of chocolate became increasingly common in the 20th century, with chocolate included in standard military rations or Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) as a treat that provides sustenance as well as morale.
— Filet mignon (@momecat) December 30, 2012
To the military, chocolate’s function is largely practical in giving troops energy to fight. But its use in war is also multipurpose, as a soldier’s ration, a morale boost, a method of diplomacy and good will, and sometimes as one of its spoils. Military-grade chocolate, while very different than that sold to the public, shares some aspects with its commercial counterpart. Even on the battlefield, chocolate serves to bring moments of happiness and forge friendships, adding some sweetness to an otherwise serious, somber world.